Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.

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Cigar Review: Surrogates Cracker Crumbs

Cigar Review: Surrogates Cracker Crumbs

If before discovering these cigars you asked me for my pick of the “best cigar for the money” I would have said the Drew Estate Papa’s Fritas. True their price has gone up by about 30% in the years since they first appeared, but they are still a great stick for the money. Having encountered these Cracker Crumbs, retailing at only $2.90/stick (I found them for $2.45) I might have to change my mind…

Surrogates are one of L’Atelier’s brands and rolled at the My Father factory in Esteli Nicaragua. My Father knows how to roll a cigar and L’Atelier is adept at finding delicious blends. So far so good. Surrogates gives each of its vitolas names. The Cracker Crumbs is a 4.5″ x 38 (so petit corona) version of the much larger (6″ x 60) “Animal Crackers”, a cigar I haven’t tried as that vitola is just way to big for me..

Let’s get to the meat of it…

Wrapper: Ecuadorian Habano Oscuro
Binder: Nicaragua
Filler: Nicaragua

Cold Aroma: Very light. Some barnyard, something a little sweet (leather?). Nice but indistinct.
Cold Draw: Salt, light grass or hay. Again indistinct

Construction: This cigar is a little rough. a maduro-dark brown, easily visible seams, some prominent veins. Evenly packed though, and a little heavy, a somewhat dense cigar. Interestingly, the cigar is pre-straight-cut almost as though when L’Atelier got their order of paper wrappers (5 cigars to a pack) they were slightly too small and someone came up with the brilliant idea of pre-cutting the stick to fit. Pure speculation on my part. If you look carefully there is clearly a double cap at the head, so these were not made to be open like a cheroot.

Meanwhile, the stick smokes beautifully and very slowly. Lots of creamy smoke, medium draw throughout, and an even burn requiring only occasional touch up. I’ve been through two packs of these and only a couple required any poking with a draw tool to loosen it a bit. Consistently smokes about an hour.

Flavors: This is the best tasting cigar under $3 I have ever had. It begins with a little pepper, sweet woods, graham cracker, and evolves a little more sweetness and leather. On the tongue alone the flavors are muddled, but become distinctively sweet (along with more pepper) on the retrohale. The flavors evolve through the first half of the cigar, more maple wood sweetness and leather come forward, some roasted nut, and a little wintergreen. As the stick smokes down the sweetness fades a bit, the pepper comes forward, but the leather and scent of burning leaves remain. The cigar holds some flavors down to the last 3/4″ so all is good.

Are the Cracker Crumbs as good as the Papa’s Fritas? Well no, not quite. A few of these drew a bit tight and I had to use my draw tool. I never have to do that with the Papa’s Fritas. But the flavors are in the same wheelhouse (the D.E. cigar is a little more flavorful with coco and less pepper) and it is almost $2 less expensive (retail to retail) a 40% reduction! I would say don’t miss these unless you just don’t like L’Atelier or the vitola. Here are a couple of other reviews from HALFWHEEL and LEAF ENTHUSIAST

Cigar Review: Warped “Maestro del Tiempo”

Cigar Review: Warped “Maestro del Tiempo”

Wrapper: Jalapa Nicaragua Corojo 99 Aganorsa
Binder: Nicaraguan Condega
Filler: Criollo 98 and Corojo 99
Rolled at the TABSA (Casa Fernandez) factory in Esteli Nicaragua, the brand (Warped) owner is Kyle Gellis.

I am smoking the production “5205” version a 6.3″ x 42 a longish corona they call a lonsdale.

A little difficult to get the composition straight. Here is what HALFWHEEL and Cigar Dojo say about this stick. But one learns something every time. I did not ever know what AGANORSA means… According to the Cigar Dojo review linked just above: “This acronym represents Agricola Ganadera Norteña S.A., a series of Nicaraguan farms owned by the Fernández family (Casa Fernández) that produce among the largest yields of Nicaraguan tobaccos, as well as some of the most highly acclaimed tobacco in the world.”

So this looks like a great cigar right? Well yes it is, but it isn’t really my cup of tea. Read on..

Cold aroma: Rich manure, barnyard, leather. This is a rich smelling wrapper!
Cold taste: salty, grassy, and a little lemon-grass sour.

Construction: The sticks I smoked (five so far) were all pretty good. Light brown smooth wrapper, a few small visible veins. Evenly packed. Not super-dense, but not light either. Draw was medium and mostly stayed that way. Smoke output excellent all along the stick. Burn line required a minor correction from time to time but no big deal. Smoke time almost 90 minutes. Overall an “A” for construction.

Flavors: When first lit I get fresh hay, flowers, brown sugar, nuts, and sweet woods — like burning dry maple leaf. Only a little pepper tingle to speak of. Getting into it a bit there is a hint of candy-like sweetness on the retrohale and a very little bit of white pepper, still a tingle and very rounded. Pairing this stick with a mild rum I also get a hint of spearment in the smoke. As I smoke a little more a mild sourness (some call this an umami-sort of flavor, I like to think of it as cabbage cooked in tomato juice) that reminds me of the twang one often finds in Dominican cigars, something I cannot remember sensing before in a Nicaraguan Puro.

In the middle of the cigar, the nut, sweetness, and woods fade a bit and the grassy vegetal comes up along with that sourness. Pepper goes up a bit on the retrohale, but never dominates.  In the last third, the sweet woodiness returns along with some leather. A bit of that sourness remains throughout. The cigar stays pretty much medium in strength, but because it is rather long, it will give you a buzz by the time you finish it.

OK, so far so good… For me, a cigar cannot be a “great cigar” unless it satisfies three criteria:
1. Good if not excellent construction
2. Rich flavors either blended together or distinct
3. Must retain flavors (and not become merely hot smoke) down to the last inch at least — I like to go to the last 3/4″.

This cigar qualifies on all three points, but still of all the Warped cigars I’ve tried I like this one the least and that because of the sour note that gets more noticable through the middle third of the cigar. I have smoked many AGANORSA Nicaraguan Puros and I cannot remember that sourness in any of the others. I can handle a little of it and this stick is fine, the note never dominates the flavor and lots of smokers love it. This will be a great stick for a lot of people.

Cigar Review: Warped La Relatos

Cigar Review: Warped La Relatos

 

Cigar aficionado says a re-intro of a blend from 2008. The vitola here is something between a corona and a lancero at 6.25″ x 38.

Wrapper: Ecuadorian Habano
Binder: Nicaraguan
Filler: Nicaraguan mix of Corojo 99 and Criollo 98

Construction: Smooth wrapper, no visible veins, medium brown, evenly packed. I’ve smoked through five of these now, all very consistent. After cut the draw is medium though a few sticks are a little on the hard side of medium. I had to make a few minor corrections while smoking one or two, but mostly burn stays pretty level all the way down. Smoke output is excellent.

Cold smell: Mild barnyard, some hay.

Strength: medium

Flavors: Lovely wood, caramel, melba toast on rich sweet retrohale, little pepper, heady… Wintergreen/peppermint when paired with rum. Very smooth, light on pepper in the first half. Later, still sweet. Little more pepper, cedar and melba toast on retrohale. There is but a little pepper on these, even the retrohale is smooth.  There isn’t a lot of transition in flavors from one part of the cigar to the next, but all along the sweet woods, toast, and sometimes tea and leather all make their presence known. Smoke time goes about an hour and fifteen minutes, a slow and very evenly smoking cigar.

This is a very smooth cigar over all, well constructed and tasty all the way down to the last half inch. I got these with a discount (cigarandpipes.com get on their mailing list) for about $6.25/stick, their retail price is something closer to $8. But even at that this is an excellent cigar. Warped has another winner here.

 

 

 

 

Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.